The line which separates a great storyline with a terrible one is preciously thin. Much like a home run hitter in baseball strikes out more often than other players, WWE has swung for the fences with both positive and negative results over the years.
A controversial storyline in wrestling can create a buzz which brings in new fans. It can garner cross-over media attention and expand the promotion's exposure. On the flip side, swinging and missing with a controversial storyline can be a turn-off for fans. In some cases, storylines in this article were so bad that it caused many fans to tune-out on a promotion altogether. Similarly, the controversial storylines which worked in this article helped bring in new fans, and reinvigorated the current fanbase.
For those storylines which yielded positive results, it's interesting to note how close they were to messing it all up. Even just one poorly executed segment or match could have derailed the angle, and caused a good storyline to go bad. As you'll see, a storyline's success is more often determined by the performers involved than the actual writing. In some cases, however, the most talented performers in the world weren't able to make the storyline they were acting out make sense.
Here are 10 controversial storylines that worked, and 10 that didn't.
20 Didn't Work: Vince Russo & Hollywood Hogan Work/Shoot Firing
Vince Russo set about to break down wrestling's 4th wall as best he could when he signed with WCW in 1999. No better example exists than the time he "fired" Hollywood Hogan at Bash at the Beach 2000.
Russo's side of the story is that Hogan was supposed to come back months later claiming he was the real World Champion, after "defeating" Jeff Jarrett. We'd never find out where the angle was supposed to go however, as Russo would be removed from his position not long after.
The "angle" was supposed to be that Hogan was using his influence backstage to get a title run, but Russo wouldn't allow it. Russo was not only acknowledging that wrestling was fake, he was putting such a belief into storylines. We know it's fake, or should we say, predetermined, but if that's acknowledged on-air in storyline, why are fans supposed to care about the matches?
19 Worked: Canada Vs. USA
In 1997, WWE ran a controversial storyline focussed on Bret Hart and the Hart Foundation. Bret had recently turned fully heel at WrestleMania 13, and began running down American wrestling fans for cheering for someone as dastardly as Steve Austin. He then began waving a Canadian flag around and being cheered as a patriotic hero when WWE would do shows in a Canadian city. This set off the 1997 Canada vs. USA wrestling war.
Discussion on TSN's Off the Record in Canada blasted the show for playing to the lowest common denominator. Fans loved the angle for the unique dynamic in created, however. One week the Harts were hated, the next they would be loved by their home crowd, or by foreign audiences. It was like the heels and the babyfaces each had home and away games. All of a sudden things weren't so black and white anymore.
18 Didn't Work: Brian Pillman Pulls Gun On Austin
At first, this angle was a huge success. Ratings for the segment brought Raw up to Nitro's level at a time when that was not a common occurrence. Unfortunately, reaction to the angle from the USA Network and concerned parents was so strong, WWE would be forced to apologize and abandon the storyline.
The storyline between Pillman and Austin had been blooming since Pillman signed with WWE in the summer of 1996. Pillman had just had surgery to repair a badly damaged ankle when the angle at his Kentucky home was filmed on November 6th 1996. Cameras were focussed on Pillman as we heard Austin break into the home and subdue Pillman's friends. Pillman pointed a gun at Austin before the camera cut away.
Pillman also dropped an F-bomb live on-air during the segment, which had USA Network executives furious.
17 Worked: WCCW Capitalizing on David Von Erich's Death
Arguably the most talented Von Erich, David died of a suspected overdose in 1984. He was only 25 years old.
Keep in mind that in 1984, while many fans were aware pro-wrestling was not a legitimate sport, there was far more adherence to pretending it is real.
12 weeks after David's death, Fritz Von Erich held a tribute show in his honor. The show would end with Kerry Von Erich defeating Ric Flair for the NWA championship. It is said fans were aware they were watching Kerry portray the role that had been meant for David. It was a tribute to David, an acknowledgement wrestling isn’t real, and a huge money-making event for Fritz. Some fans felt the angle capitalized on David’s death, whereas others thought it a touching tribute.
Flair would win the title back from Kerry just 18 days later.
16 Didn't Work: Piggy James
In 2009, when Michelle McCool and Layla (LayCool) gave Mickie James the nickname "Piggy James," for not being as thin as they were, it was kind of not cool by the WWE.
Mickie James could in no way, shape or form (literally) be considered overweight while this angle was taking place. Unfortunately, WWE may not have realized at the time what kind of message this was sending to girls out there who actually do deal with weight problems. Any such girls watching LayCool bring James to tears with their bullying, learned that people with less weight on them than they do even get bullied for being overweight, so what hope do they have?
WWE would eventually learn better ways to set role models for young female viewers. It would be hard for them to do much worse than this.
15 Worked: ECW Goes To War With the NWA
This was the angle that launched ECW onto the national stage. It was how NWA: Eastern Championship Wrestling became Extreme Championship Wrestling.
A tournament was held on August 27th, 1994 in the ECW Arena to crown a new NWA champion. When Shane Douglas won the tournament, however, he threw down the NWA title, declaring the organization dead. He then picked up the ECW championship, and declared himself the new "ECW World Champion." From there ECW ceased to be a regional territory for the NWA.
What fans may have not been aware of at the time was that Paul Heyman really had swerved NWA President Dennis Coralluzzo. Heyman had Corralluzzo believing the angle was going to lead to an ECW vs. NWA feud. After the tournament, ECW was instead finished with the NWA.
In 2017, ECW is now dead, and Billy Corgan just purchased the NWA. Strange world.
14 Didn't Work: Hawk's Personal Demons Angle
By 1999, the Legion of Doom were struggling to fit into the new Attitude Era in pro-wrestling. They were a throwback old-school tag team, only used to crushing people. Complex storylines were not their forte.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, WWE decided to write an angle that played off Hawk's real-life battles with drugs and alcohol. He would show up on Raw in no condition to perform, while new LOD member, Puke (aka Droz), would begin to fill in for him in tag matches.
After shooting an angle where Hawk fell from the Titantron, the Road Warriors complained to management about the angle and it was dropped.
It wasn't the first time a wrestling promotion made someone's real life substance abuse issues part of a storyline, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Sadly, Hawk would die of a heart attack in 2003.
13 Worked: Jake's Cobra Bites The Macho Man
Macho Man and Jake Roberts began feuding in the summer of 1991, not long after Jake's heel turn. Jake, evidently angry he wasn't invited to Macho's bachelor party, hid a cobra in one of the couple's wedding presents. The couple were married in storyline at SummerSlam that year, and Elizabeth would open the present containing the cobra, kickstarting the rivalry.
Jake would taunt Macho, who was retired at the time, and finally was able to lure him into the ring at a set of TV tapings. He tied Macho in the ring ropes and allowed the cobra to go to town on Macho's arm. In reality, Jake was having trouble getting the snake off Macho, which is what caused the segment to go on as long as it did.
Macho would defeat Jake at the Tuesday in Texas PPV, and Roberts would move on to feud with The Undertaker.
12 Didn't Work: Muhammad Hassan
New York-born Marc J. Copani became Muhammad Hassan in late 2004. Along with his partner, Khosrow Davairi, the two cut promos on how difficult it was to be Arab in the post-9/11 United States. It was pretty touchy to begin with, and things only got worse.
At a set of SmackDown tapings held on July 4th, 2005, a controversial angle played out. The Undertaker was wrestling Davairi, when Hassan came out onto the entrance ramp and began looking as though he was praying. Then several masked men in camouflage came out and beat up Taker while Hassan put him in the camel clotch.
The London bombings would take place after the tapings but before the show aired. The angle was heavily criticized by major news outlets. UPN, the network which aired SmackDown, pressured WWE to keep the character off television, and eventually they abandoned him altogether.
11 Worked: Andy Kaufman And Jerry Lawler
Amazingly, Andy Kaufman first came to Vince McMahon Sr. about running a similar angle on their programming, and Vince passed! His loss was Jerry Lawler's gain, however.
Kaufman had began declaring himself the "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion" and would wrestle women during his live performances. After reaching a deal to perform in Memphis, vignettes began to air featuring Kaufman running down the city's people, and referring to them as "rednecks." One famous video featured Kaufman mockingly explain to the people of Memphis how to use soap.
When Kaufman finally got in the ring, he was given Lawler's patented piledriver. After taking the move he remained on the mat until an ambulance arrived. They would continue their angle on the David Letterman show, gaining national exposure for Lawler's regional promotion.
10 Didn't Work: Vince McMahon Vs. God
In 2005, Vince had destroyed his competition. Who was there left to take on and defeat? Only God himself, that's who.
After losing to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 22, Vince challenged HBK to a tag team match at Backlash. Vince's tag team partner would be his very own son, Shane McMahon. As for Shawn Michaels, the born-again Christian who found his faith after being forced to retire for years due to a back injury, he would be teaming with God. Shawn's real religious views had found their way into storyline, as tends to happen in wrestling.
God was represented by a spotlight during the match. Vince and Shane ended up winning, with God playing little role in the bout. This was during the period where the Spirit Squad were serving as run-in buddies for Vince and Shane, so a lot of silliness was going on at the time.
9 Worked: "Broken" Matt Hardy
Good for Matt Hardy! For a guy who started his career as a teenager doing jobs on Monday Night Raw he sure has done well for himself.
In 2016, Matt Hardy was in TNA, where good wrestlers have often gone to take a few years off and still collect a pay cheque. In 2016, Matt Hardy wasn't content to just keep cashing cheques off his previous accomplishments, however. He revamped his character, adopted a new manner of speaking, and referred to himself as "Broken".
The Hardys began filming hilarious segments at the "Hardy Family Compound." In almost no time, the family, which now also included Reby Sky, King Maxel, Brother Nero, and Senor Benjamin, became arguably the most talked about angle to ever appear on TNA programming.
In 2017, a legal dispute between the Hardys and new TNA owners prevented Matt from bringing the characters with him to WWE immediately.
8 Didn't Work: Billy and Chuck
In 2001, WWE went to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for help with developing an angle where two male wrestlers would come out as gay and marry. The problem was, WWE told GLAAD that the Billy and Chuck characters would marry and continue their careers as openly gay characters on WWE programming.
What WWE actually had them do was stop their "commitment ceremony" midway, announce they weren't gay and the whole thing was a publicity stunt. Then the priest ripped off his extensive facial disguise to reveal himself as Eric Bischoff. At that point, Bischoff ordered 3 Minute Warning to attack everyone and that was that.
GLAAD was not able to live up to their acronym regarding how they felt about the angle. The organization publicly berated WWE for lying to them for months regarding their true intentions.
7 Worked: Double Hebners Cost Hulk Hogan the WWE Championship
It wouldn't be the last time a Hebner was involved in a controversial decision...
In the lead up to WrestleMania IV, Hulk Hogan took on Andre the Giant on "the Main Event". During the match, Andre had Hogan pinned and the ref began to count. Hogan got his shoulder up almost immediately but Hebner kept counting to 3. The bell sounded and Andre was declared the winner.
Hogan was beside himself, when another Hebner ran down to ringside. Dave and Earl are identical twins, but at the time WWE fans had never seen them together on television, and didn't know there were two of them. Hogan would later claim in an interview that Ted DiBiase had paid for someone to get plastic surgery to look identical to referee Earl Hebner in order to screw him out of the championship.
6 Didn't Work: Matt Hardy/Edge/Lita Storyline
Matt Hardy has been part of controversial storylines which did not work as well however. In the spring of 2005, Matt was on the shelf with a knee injury. While he was injured his then-girlfriend Lita was on the road. During this time she began an affair with Edge which became public knowledge. Matt would even confront Lita on an episode of Byte This, WWE's internet call-in show at the time.
WWE would release Matt on April 11th, 2005, causing Edge and Lita to be booed by live audiences who felt they had caused Matt to lose his job. Fans began chanting "You Screwed Matt!" at the pair. WWE gave Matt his job back, however, and turned the real-life issues among the three into a storyline.
Fans were happy Matt was re-hired, but the angle felt awkward, and eventually became the catalyst for Lita leaving the organization for many years.
5 Worked: The nWo Invasion
The nWo invasion angle was Eric Bischoff's idea, and was based on an angle which played out in Japan earlier that year. New Japan Pro Wrestling had been "invaded" by the UWFi promotion, and the two sides faced off against one another.
So Bischoff signed some of WWE's top guys, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, and made it appear as though WWF (now WWE) was invading WCW. When Vince McMahon sued WCW, the company made it clear neither Hall or Nash worked for WWE however. Their WWF backgrounds were only subtly referred to from that point on.
There can be no doubt however, that it was the nWo invasion angle which caused Nitro to leap ahead of Raw in the ratings during the early part of the Monday Night War.
4 Didn't Work: Sgt Slaughter Iraqi-Sympathizer Angle
This angle gets a lot of attention in terms of how controversial it was, but little attention gets paid to the fact that it was possibly the biggest flop in WrestleMania history.
WrestleMania VII in 1991 was supposed to be held in the LA Memorial Colosseum, but ticket sales were so abysmal the promotion was forced to change venues to the smaller LA Memorial Sports Arena. Imagine if that happened today, even Roman Reigns would cease to get pushed if his WrestleMania main event flopped so poorly.
Sgt Slaughter's heel turn to become an Iraqi sympathizer the year before, may have been controversial, but it wasn't eliciting the response from fans WWF wanted. The problem was, neither had Ultimate Warrior's title run the previous year.
This was the beginning of a bleak period for the company. They wouldn't fully bounce back until the Attitude Era kicked in.
3 Worked: Daniel Bryan's WrestleMania XXX Journey
Daniel Bryan's storyline leading into WrestleMania XXX was based on what was actually happening in the company at the time. At the Royal Rumble that year, Batista was victorious, but his win was met with thunderous boos from the crowd. The crowd wanted Bryan to win the match, and were disappointed to find out he wasn't even entered into the Rumble match. The Philadelphia crowd reacted with unrelenting boos, and future crowds for Raw and SmackDown would follow suit, hijacking shows in support of Daniel Bryan.
WWE was forced to concede that Bryan was the choice of the WWE audience. They worked an angle where fans literally hijacked the Raw ring, preventing the show from continuing unless Bryan was given a match with HHH at WrestleMania, and if Bryan won he'd be inserted into the main event.
For the first time in history, the fans forced the company to rewrite WrestleMania.
2 Didn't Work: Katie Vick
It is possibly the most used example of a terrible WWE storyline ever. Amazingly, it was two future first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, Kane and HHH, who were tasked with acting out this bizarre, and uncomfortable angle.
In 2002, Triple H was champion of the Raw brand, and leading to October's No Mercy PPV, he was feuding with Kane. Seemingly to get under Kane's skin, HHH began claiming that Kane had an ex-girlfriend named Katie Vick, who had died in a car accident. Then he claimed that Kane actually had sex with Katie Vick's body after she had died. Not only that, but Hunter then claimed he had video footage of it. The video footage would later turn out to be Triple H pretending to have sex with a mannequin in a casket.
Fans hated the angle, and WWE dropped it immediately after the PPV.
1 Worked: The "1" In 21-And-1
Saying this angle worked will be controversial, as many fans hated it. When Brock Lesnar defeated The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXX, however, it kickstarted a new era in pro-wrestling, one which included part-time attractions to return for big matches, but not tour with the company regularly.
Lesnar was actually losing steam around this time. Since returning to the WWE in 2012, he had already lost to John Cena at an Extreme Rules PPV, and lost to Triple H at WrestleMania XXIX. The big win over Undertaker re-instated Lesnar as a monster that couldn't be beaten. In true highlander fashion, Lesnar took Undertaker's feeling of invincibility and kept it for his own. Now each time Lesnar wrestles it feels more important. There have been plenty of champions, but only one man ended The Streak.